Sunday, April 29, 2012


(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 868-871, 928-937)

As Greil Marcus asked of Bob Dylan's Self PortraitWhat is this shit?

By way of explanation, here's Mark Millar, interviewed in this month's Judge Dredd Megazine: "I only got into 2000 AD after I began working on it... I didn't realize how good 2000 AD was until much later on--and I hate to say this but I think I wrote some of the worst 2000 AD stories ever."

I'm not unreservedly down on Millar--I adore his Superman Adventures run, and his Ultimates and Authority have a crazy, barbed energy that's sometimes a lot of fun. But he's right: most of his 2000 AD material is just awful, stupid, condescending stuff, and his Dredd stories in particular totally miss what makes the series work when it works. Still, he's a big name now, in the post-Wanted/Kick-Ass world, and so is his former writing partner Grant Morrison, who had already published the excellent "Zenith" and "Dare" and Animal Man and Doom Patrol and the first few issues of The Invisibles by the time the Morrison/Millar-co-written "Crusade" appeared in 1995. That might explain the recent appearance of this slim, disastrously weak album with a handsome Brian Bolland cover (depicting the big-bad from "Crusade," who's set up for fifty pages or so before he's dispatched in a third-of-a-page fight with Dredd).

The ostensible premise of "Crusade" is that the Judges of Many Nations go to Antarctica to find a guy who claims he's seen God; they meet up, chat a bit, and decide to head off in separate directions, then spend the rest of the story trying to kill each other. As dumb as that is on its face, it's got other infelicities interrupting every few pages. Like the badass, crossbow-brandishing Vatican City judge, whose appearance suggests that everyone involved has forgotten about Devlin Waugh. Or the sinners bowing to a statue of "Ciccioliana" (sic) in the middle of the Vatican. Or the Indian judges being named "Sharma" and "Bhaji." Or the Pan-African judge being named "Daktari." Or the Japanese judge reprising the "ninja slices his enemy into pieces before he realizes what's happening" riff from Frank Miller's Daredevil in a grosser way, and then committing ritual suicide accompanied by a column of Japanese calligraphy. Or the dialogue's many lesser variations on "no, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die" (e.g. "Your priority should be staying alive, American!"). Or Dredd fulfilling a request to bring back someone who's discovered vital information by decapitating him and bringing back his head. And so on. All of this is made that much duller by Mick Austin's artwork, which is consistently ugly and garish--Austin gets a couple of stark, looming vistas across in the first few pages, but once the story degenerates into a gorefest, he starts phoning it in.

The short feature that follows the main attraction is the Millar-written "Frankenstein Division," which ran earlier--in the first four issues cover-dated 1994--and even manages to waste the talents of Carlos Ezquerra. Good on Millar for figuring that there would be repercussions from "The Apocalypse War" ten years later; too bad he appears not to have actually read it. So the Sovs have sewn together pieces of a bunch of their judges who Dredd personally killed in the war into a gigantic monster with a synthetic brain, which is supposed to be "the future of law enforcement." But where would they have gotten the corpses? Yeltsin and Andropov of East-Meg Two--and Millar must have tried really hard to make up those names--wouldn't have had access to the bodies of the Sov judges Dredd killed during the invasion of Mega-City One; they also wouldn't have had access to any of the bodies he left behind in East-Meg One, because the entire city was nuked.

A friend of mine recently pointed out a tic in bad Millar: his habit of repeating a word or phrase in dialogue. "Nothing will stop it. Nothing can stop it. There'll be hell to pay." "Nothing can stop me. And there'll be hell to pay... hell on earth!" "I beat you! I beat you good!" "My head--f-feel's [sic] like it's on fire! What's happening to my head?" "The place is on fire, drokk it!" Also, Millar quoting the Monks' "Nice Legs, Shame About the Face" in a scene about picking body parts to assemble into a monster constitutes justifiable grounds for throwing this book across the room.

Fortunately, it's pretty much all uphill from here in the Dreddverse bibliography: I can only think of a couple more volumes I'm not actively looking forward to reading or re-reading. Next week: Wilderlands, collecting the ambitious if ungainly crossover for which John Wagner returned to 2000 AD

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Mega-City Masters 02

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 513, 613, 740, 800-803, 855, 859-866, 895-896, 954, 1482, 1613-1616, 1640-1648)

The current American Dredd reprint program from Simon & Schuster has had one angle I don't think earlier ones have tried: the Mega-City Masters series, reprinting Dredd stories from the entire history of 2000 AD, focusing on significant artists (the first and third volumes, which we'll be getting to in, I think, June and August respectively) and writers (this one)--there's not yet any sign of a fourth, or of the double digits of volumes suggested by the title. The writers represented here include almost all of the ones who've spent significant amounts of time with Dredd--with the prominent exceptions of Gordon Rennie and Robbie Morrison--and some of those who haven't. Curiously, this book doesn't include any Megazine episodes either, unlike the other two MCM volumes; that might have made it easier to find some not-overexposed material that showed off various writers to best effect. "Monkey on My Back," anyone?

An all-writers showcase--especially for a series that's most strongly identified with two or three particular writers--is an odd idea, but potentially interesting. It's undermined by some peculiar choices, though. I don't know that "That Sweet Stuff" is the strongest choice among Alan Grant's solo Dredds, or that these two Garth Ennis stories really needed another go-'round (not that I mind seeing "The Marshal" again). Dan Abnett's published all of four Dredd stories, and "Rad Blood" isn't a particularly good one: it's mostly notable as one of the last few prog appearances by Ron Smith.

(Smith was all but entirely absent from Dredd in 2000 AD after 1986 or so. I always wondered why that was, but his interview in the Megazine a few years ago suggested that he and John Wagner didn't get along at all. During the early-'90s Wagner interregnum, Smith reappeared, drawing the Daily Star Dredd strip on and off from late 1991 to mid-1998. He also drew 14 Dredd episodes in 2000 AD in 1993 and 1994, but once Wagner returned in the summer of '94, they did only one episode together before Smith vanished from the prog for good.)

I'm also enough of a sucker for the Ian Edginton/D'Israeli team that seeing Edginton and Dave Taylor's "High Spirits"--very attractively drawn in Taylor's airy post-Moebius mode, but the kind of handwaving supernatural horror that seems completely off for Judge Dredd--just makes me want to see the trio of one-offs involving H.G. Wells that Edginton and D'Israeli wrote and drew in 2004, 2006 and 2007 instead. Pat Mills hasn't written too many Dredd stories since "The Cursed Earth" that don't involve Satanus, and "Birthday Boy" is a real head-scratcher--a supernatural story that's built on one improbably convenient coincidence after another. (Vince Locke's artwork is also a little wobbly and unruly to fit in with the ordinary look of the series, although it's more appropriate for a horror sequence than a straight-up action piece.) And "Statue of Judgement" is a lesser dartboard-throw choice for a Wagner-written episode, although it's certainly not terrible.

My not-entirely-defensible prejudices, I suspect, are coloring my impressions of this collection. I have a problematic tendency to think any Dredd writer who isn't named John Wagner is Doing It Wrong, I know, and the flip side of that is to think that any other writer is Doing It Right to the extent that they're doing something Wagneresque. This is a tendency of which I suspect I should divest myself as quickly as possible, especially given that a) "Day of Chaos" is reading more and more like the thematic climax of the past couple of decades of Dredd in the same way that "Necropolis" was the climax of the first 14 years, and b) Wagner noted on Facebook a few days ago that he had finished writing "Day of Chaos" and was "really looking forward to seeing what other writers do with what I've left them." (Uh-oh.)

Nonetheless, my favorite of the previously uncollected stories here has to be Al Ewing and Karl Richardson's "Rehab," an exceptionally clever five-parter that's totally built on the Wagner template in some ways (and not at all in other ways). The opening scene of its second episode, with the World Politeness Championship, could just about be a lost sequence from "Return of the Taxidermist"; the newscasters' heavy-breathing enthusiasm, the quick Otto Sump ad and the singalongs are all familiar gambits from the Wagner playbook.

But what makes the whole thing work as a story is that it's not just one idea stretched out to a multiple of six pages. There are a bunch of concepts here, large and small, that are much more Ewing-ish, and those are the ones that drive "Rehab": "Rage Hard" and his belief in violence for its own sake, the indignant deep-undercover Judge, the verbose and over-philosophical scientist, and most of all an idea of what Dredd's (and Mega-City One's) opposite number would be. I particularly like that Ewing takes the funniest idea in the whole story--the alternate universe's mild-mannered peacekeeper "Judge Joe" and the communitarian culture that produced him--and makes it a tragic axis for the plot to swing around. (And, on reflection, most of the plot strains are related: pretty much everything in the story concerns self-repression and politesse vs. rudeness.)

On the bummer side, there's "Book of the Dead," one of the three lengthy storylines on which Grant Morrison and Mark Millar collaborated (the others are "Crusade," which we'll be getting to next week, and "Purgatory"/"Inferno," which they supposedly wrote separately); it was actually reprinted in a volume of its own by Hamlyn some years ago. This one bears Millar's touch much more than Morrison's, I suspect. It's the storyline in which Dredd goes to Egypt, and--deep sigh--discovers that their judicial culture is based on the Egypt of several thousand years earlier. (Because coming up with a satirical riff on the Egypt of 1993, or at least what "ancient Egypt" meant to the culture of 1993, would have required actual thought and maybe even research!)

"Book of the Dead" doesn't look as weak as it reads, mostly because Dermot Power has a solid design sense and gave it that lush painted look that was in vogue in 2000 AD then. (When was the last painted strip in the prog that wasn't by John Burns? And what was the last painted episode of Dredd? Can it really be, as Barney suggests, "PF" from #1476?) But there's almost nothing in it that's not painfully stupid or an easy gross-out--the toilet paper/mummy gag is some kind of nadir, and resolving the plot with an extended fight scene is a real letdown. Also, the bit about "your genetic material is the purest, derived from the ancient Judda themselves": argh. Even without the later clarification of "Origins"--Eustace Fargo became Chief Judge in 2031, meaning that the Judda as an organization can't be more than, say, 85 years old at the very outside--that's a pretty boneheaded misreading of "Oz."

Millar's attitude toward Dredd's satirical elements always seemed to be "it's a bit of a laugh, really," missing the point that the series' best jokes took their silliness seriously. Hence, for instance, "Judge Tyrannosaur," which features some of the most dumbed-down dialogue I've seen outside of Spidey Super Stories. ("Nobody can hide from the law, creep"--next word balloon--"not even in the Cursed Earth!") It's another pretty Ron Smith color job, but it's also a little embarrassing to see the artist of "Bob & Carol & Ted & Ringo" being dragged back to that territory. Smith can't have missed the resemblance, and in fact he draws "Mike Crichton, Jurassic expert" to look exactly like Irrawaddy Skinner from the earlier story. There's a dinosaur in the room, and it's not the older gentleman drawing the story.

Next week: wading further into the Morrison/Millar era with Crusade!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Taxidermist

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD #507-510, #1070 and #1087-1089, and The Taxidermist from Judge Dredd Megazine #2.37-2.46)

Our guest this week is Lori Matsumoto, who is one of those people who Makes Things Happen. She's a comics writer (watch for an announcement of a big project coming soon!), photographer, blogger and cheese-eater, and just launched Mark Waid's forum. She and I discussed the collection of the 1987-1998 stories involving Olympian Jacob Sardini, The Taxidermist.

LORI: I guess this is Week 2 of Japanese American women writing about cultural stereotyping-palooza in Judge Dredd. "Forgivable but confusing" is an excellent way to describe it. As I read The Taxidermist, I kept having some version of this thought process:

    Whoa, this is racist!
    Then again, Gibson portrays every ethnicity in a grotesquely stereotypical way.
    But... but... the way he depicts the Nepalese is really troubling.
    Look at his Germans. You thought they were hilarious!
    Yes but argh.

Occasionally my musings on race were superseded by sugarplum visions of Body Worlds. Flensed sugarplums. Douglas, have you been to Body Worlds? 

I went expecting to be repelled, you know, being surrounded by taxidermied humans and everything, but I was more disturbed by the poses they were in than anything else. If stuff like this and this exists in the world, are we so far off from this? 

Also I found this photo. I don't know what to say about it.

Beautiful and Bizarre bw1

Wait wait wait, I just found this.

Dude. It's only a matter of time before human taxidermy becomes a reality show, and then an Olympic sport.

DOUGLAS: Well, yeah, and that's really the hidden theme of The Taxidermist, that bodies are becoming completely separated from the idea of "dignity." I wouldn't have guessed that would be the basis of a laugh riot, but this is one of the funniest books in the entire Dredd-verse. (I actually haven't been to Body Worlds; I think it would just make me really sad to see it in person. Apparently John Wagner was ahead of the curve in figuring out where the bodies used in it might have come from.)

What Sardini does to bodies is, by our standards, as undignified as anything could imaginably be, but the central joke of his story is that he's the one character in the whole thing to whom dignity is everything--an old-fashioned craftsman who's frustrated by the decline in the quality of handiwork and by the dumb things that kids get up to. ("That was his trouble - girls, and those stupid friends of his at the Stutter Club. Why couldn't they speak normally, Sardini would like to know? And why did they dress like fools?")

I imagine that mortality and the idea of what happens to the body after death were on Wagner's mind a lot during this period, for whatever reason: I just realized that the same issue as the final episode of "Return of the Taxidermist" included "Bury My Knee at Wounded Heart," one of his best-loved Dredd one-offs, which is entirely about that. More and more, I suspect that the gag in "The Executioner" about where Mega-City citizens go where they die--to the conveyor belts at Resyk--might be the single best joke to come out of the Wagner/Grant collaboration; it certainly never loses its punch, no matter how many times anyone goes back to it.

I promise I'm going to get back to the race stuff in a bit (especially after last week, I don't want to lose sight of it), but first I want to natter a bit about how ingeniously constructed The Taxidermist as a whole is, and specifically about "Return of the Taxidermist." It's a story constructed on a very familiar template--master of a craft comes back for one last challenge/athlete comes back for one last big game--and it takes the utterly insane idea of human taxidermy as an Olympic sport and plays that absolutely straight, thinking through what exactly that competition would be like and what kind of melodrama would arise around Sardini's final big effort. ("He always said no one ever had hands like Sardini. Hands born to stuff their fellow man.")

That's one kind of comedy. Another kind comes from figuring out what kinds of activities make the least sense as competitions, and framing them as competitions. (I get the sense that most of "Laser Gaze" Bolton's appearances were written after Wagner saw how hilarious Ian Gibson made the first one turn out; she actually came back for a second sequence a few years later, and there was a bit in Judge Dredd about competitive staring just a few months back.) Still another kind is a gag Wagner's returned to again and again, because it basically always works in his hands: channeling the fatuous diction of TV sportscasts and their announcers. ("Robbert--all that remains is for me to say goodbye, and good luck." "Thanks, Grace. We're going to need it. We're a real crap team.") And there are lots of (relatively) understated gags, as in the first "Taxidermist" story--my favorite is when we find out how it is that Fraulein Körperstopfer's hairstyle keeps changing from episode to episode.

The core of the story, though, is actually a straightforward drama: can the mastery that's come to Jacob with age compensate for his physical decline? Can he come to terms with the new technology he loathes? Can he learn the kind of "showmanship" that may be incompatible with what he thinks of as his quiet craft? And can he atone for the cowardice that (as we've seen before) is his failing?

(One other little detail that I really like is the fakeout in the plot: everything we hear about Guru Mahama early on makes him out to be so saintly that there's no way not to suspect that he's actually going to turn out to be some kind of corrupt horror. But he actually is that saintly--until Sardini becomes complicit in ruining his dignity.)

Also: points to Ian Gibson, who's rarely gotten to do color work, and even more rarely gotten to do color work that looks this rich and wittily rendered. (The lines of Fraulein Körperstopfer's dress! The vectors of Sardini's moustache!) Compare this to his dashed-off "Q. Twerk" gigs, or that piece in the back of the second Judge Anderson Psi Files collection--it's hard to believe they're by the same artist. I particularly love his redesign of Sardini, with those spindly little ankles, looking like he just stepped out of a Pixar movie.

"Revenge of the Taxidermist" pales in comparison, I think--not as funny or smart or anywhere near as attractively executed--although I do love Wagner's habit of actually getting rid of beloved recurring characters sometimes. Killing off the featured character halfway through the second part of a three-part story is a hilariously audacious move, too, and it's only fitting that Sardini's murder is avenged through the total loss of his dignity as he understands it--as opposed to how his heir understands it--and the complete perversion of his explicitly expressed desires concerning what should happen to his body after he dies. (And, of course, the moment that he finally shows a little backbone, it immediately gets him killed.) He got off surprisingly easily in the original "Taxidermist" story, but pretty much everybody in Dredd's world gets betrayed in the end.

LORI: I didn't realize you were going to do such an in-depth analysis. And here I'm all, it reminded me of Body Worlds, you guys!

Anyway, I have further shallow observations.

I appreciated the inclusion of synchronized swimming as a competitive sport alongside taxidermy, Everest-climbing, and sex. It's a cheap joke, as is the subsequent massacre of the synchronized swimmers, but I am a fan of cheap jokes.

Speaking of cheap jokes: I didn't realize Sardini's wife was dead and stuffed in all three stories until I got to the third one. Her banal poses were amusing until I started to give them greater thought, and then they were kind of disturbing. So I refrained from giving them greater thought. I guess that sums up my experience of reading The Taxidermist: amusing on the surface, less so past that.

I did enjoy a lot of Wagner's concepts; I especially liked the way he messed with ideas of legacy. Life in Mega-City is cheap, but one's corpse might be memorialized in an elaborate tableau of The Birth of Hitler. Guru Mahama lives on in his generals' idea of what his legacy should be. (Until he doesn't.) Sardini's legacy before his death is more significant than it is after it.

I'm out of time so I'll leave the race/class dissection to you, the privileged white guy. I was writing a paragraph about it, but then I started likening The Taxidermist to Downton Abbey, and then that devolved into a rant about why I don't like Downton Abbey but am tempted to watch the third season anyway because I like Shirley MacLaine. So yeah.

DOUGLAS: Fair enough. But yes okay I do have to talk about the race stuff, because it really is a problem for me as a reader. My attitude toward it as the privileged white guy is a totally entitled and selfish one: "how dare anything interfere with my enjoyment of this thing I want to enjoy?" "Return of the Taxidermist" is a story I'd really like to enjoy without reservations, but then I run into Major Koosh--a villain with a cat-whisker moustache and a design straight out of the Yellow Peril playbook--or the Gurkha yelling "Aieeeeee" as he prepares for his massacre, or the enormous bald helper saying "I watchee you--on vid vid! You great man!," and it's like discovering a bug in my soup.

I mean: yes, Wagner and Gibson mock absolutely everybody in this story (it's an Olympics story, so there's a lot of options available for mocking), and arguably the only character who ultimately escapes the business end of their jokes altogether is Guru Mahama himself. And mocking every ethnicity including one's own is for sure a step up from singling one or two out to mock. (It took me a little while to realize that the pose and outfit Sardini's adopted on the cover that was repurposed for the collection are very close to a famous image of John Bull, below.)

Nonetheless, it's a pretty solid guideline that it's not okay to make fun of people who are lower on the socioeconomic mountain than you are, or to recapitulate particular kinds of caricatures that have a history of being tied to oppression. Which is to say that I also think Wagner and Gibson's German jokes are pretty funny in this context. But the difference between the European caricatures and the Nepali caricatures here is that the Europeans are depicted as eccentric jerks, and the Nepalis are mostly depicted as, one way or another, subhuman.

Even so, the part of me that wants to not be maddened by the ugly stereotypes in here came up with a test: are they necessary for something else this story is trying to do that's rewarding in its own way? And the answer is no, totally not. Give the bald helper a line of dialogue even as bland as "I saw you on vid--very impressive!" and the scene would probably be funnier. Major Koosh could be caricatured in any number of ways that don't look like the cover of Detective Comics #1, with zero effect on the plot. And as for the synchronized swimmers... well, I'd rather see more of what the housework competitors were up to, anyway.


Thank you, Lori! Next week, I'll sidle into one of the odder recent American attempts to provide a survey of Dredd's history, Mega-City Masters 2

Sunday, April 8, 2012


(Reprints Shimura stories from Judge Dredd Megazine #2.37-2.39, 2.50-2.55, 2.72-2.74, 2.76-2.77, 3.14-3.17 and 3.34, Judge Dredd story from Judge Dredd Megazine #3.19, and Judge Inspector Inaba stories from Judge Dredd Megazine #3.21 and 3.37-3.38)

We've got another special guest this week: Anne Ishii, a kickass critic, translator and blogger who I suspected would have strong opinions about Shimura. And I was right! Take it away, Anne!

ANNE: This ironic bit of dialogue in “Fearful Symmetry” sort of sums up my misgivings about the otherwise forgivable but confusing oriental experiment in the Judge Dredd narrative:

Mariko: Drokk, this place is disgusting! Did we kill the gardener?
Nanae: Was he the short one? I don’t remember… the staff all looked the same to me. (pg. 84, emphasis added)

Damn. An identical twin, making a “they all look the same” joke about Japanese staff.  If there were no other reason to believe this was written by Anglophones, this would be proof positive.  The real farce is that the characters are actually so inconsistently un-Asian across the board.

I’ll grant that in 70-100 years the Japanese people could possibly have all been on strict diets composed of nothing but steak, buttermilk and creatine. They’ll have all joined Olympic lifting teams and eliminated all joy from their lives. That’s in fact what Japanese people look like by the time Shimura has been outcast as a Judge in the police state of Hondo-City. I’ll also grant that this is a superhero narrative, where characters frequently look like they’re made of a bunch of boners, so looking for realistic depictions of anything, let alone humans, is about as useful as a body made up of boners.

However, if you’re going to talk about Asians, there is one conundrum you must absolutely, unconditionally, always address and/or solve: 

Nail the distinguishing physical features of Asian ethnicities without caricaturing the distinguishing physical features of the entire Asian race.

Myself an Asian, I can draw an Asian with my eyes closed. No, literally. That’s pretty much what drawings of us all look like. People with our eyes closed. Let’s just be honest here. But nothing’s as irritating as being confused as a “fellow” Asian from the other side of the continent. I can tell you Judge Inaba in “Outcast” is not Japanese. Phenotypically, she looks more like a suicidal Mongolian lesbian. Judge Inaba by Frank Quitely is Vietnamese (possibly Laotian). Judge Inaba by Simon Fraser is probably the closest thing to Japanese, but we’re talking Ainu. The teacher in “Chambara” is not Japanese. She’s a Nepalese migrant waiting tables at a gay bar in Detroit. The Chiako Twins are half Japanese. Happas stand out like a sore thumb... or like superhero deltoids. Shimura’s physique changes so dramatically from page to page I don’t bother trying to figure out where he’s from. But I’ll point out this much.

Shimura in "Fearful Symmetry" (page 85, last frame) is identical to the unrelated Sesoku in the second frame on page 1 of "Web" (Cyril Julien), and both look like Carey Hiroyuki-Tagawa, who is the scariest-looking Japanese man on Earth, and a recurring subject of my adolescent kidnap-and-ravage fantasies. I was a less scary-looking Japanese back then.

DOUGLAS: Yeah, that's a big problem. Actually, more broadly, artistic inconsistency has been a persistent issue with Shimura almost from the get-go. Well, one of the issues.

A little background: Hondo City (and its Judge uniforms) first appeared in "Our Man in Hondo," a 1989 story by John Wagner and Colin MacNeil that was... not Wagner's finest hour. (I suspect it might set off a finger-in-the-throat eruption.) Robbie Morrison was fairly new to writing comics when he came up with the idea for a Dredd-world series set in Japan, and the first Shimura story he wrote was the incredibly densely packed "Outcast," for which MacNeil returned to the setting he'd devised a few years earlier. MacNeil was in the middle of drawing it when the first story in the book (also the first published), "Shimura," was commissioned as a prequel to "Outcast," to establish who Shimura and Inaba were before tossing the reader in head-first.

Quitely's artwork--what little there is of it--is what makes this book for me. He was still a relative unknown at the time he drew "Shimura" (he'd published two seven-page episodes of "Missionary Man," and that was it aside from small-press stuff), but he comes out blazing. Character acting, page design, the sound effects embedded on a plane we're seeing from an angle, the coloring-as-linework, the way his action scenes are all about potential energy rather than expressed kinetic energy: it's all there already (and he's doing it even better by the time of "Babes with Big Bazookas," just a few years later). Morrison noted in a 1995 interview that the final episode of that initial serial "is a bit confusing. Somehow [Quitely] lost a page of script, but drew the entire episode nevertheless, missing out crucial plot details. By the time he realised, it was too late to redraw anything, so we did a hasty and slightly clumsy rewrite of the ending. Hopefully nobody noticed."

I also like the way the first serial sets up what looks like the premise for the series--Shimura and Inaba as Batman and Robin, basically--and the second one immediately smashes that premise for good. Unfortunately, MacNeil, who's ordinarily a graceful storyteller, hits the speed-bump of "Outcast" (twelve panels on some pages is a heavy restriction to put on an artist who likes to use scale as much as MacNeil does, and he's much better with textured color than with black-and-white line art), and the whole thing starts to shake apart. Morrison's writing has a touch of what little manga was available to Anglophones in the U.K. in 1992; MacNeil's idea of "the manga look" is Goseki Kojima's art on Lone Wolf and Cub as filtered through Frank Miller's Ronin, plus a little of The Dark Knight Returns. (That third page of "Outcast," below, is totally a Batman and Robin pose.) But Morrison's trying to get so much done at once that it's one of the very few lengthy Dredd-universe stories whose plot sometimes doesn't track at all.

And after that, this volume's mostly a mess. Simon Fraser was also a newbie at the time; he's come into his own since, with his artwork on Nikolai Dante and Lilly MacKenzie, but he's groping his way around in his early Shimura stories. And the Duke Mighten and Robert McCallum-drawn sequences are iffy at best. The low point is "Web," the Dredd team-up, in which the characters are shoved together in a way that obscures both of them rather than illuminating either of them. (Curiously, this collection omits one Mighten-drawn episode, "Heavy Metal," from Megazine 2.75; could it be because stories involving seppuku are Japanese Adventure Story Cliché #1? Also missing: both of the episodes drawn by Lol, from Megazine 3.35 and Judge Dredd Mega Special 1996.

The big problem with Shimura for me, besides its occasional lack of clarity, is that it seems awkwardly shoved into the world of the Mega-Cities. It's a science-fictional "samurai without a master" story, but I don't know what it gains from making its protagonist a former supercop, and its take on Hondo-City doesn't really say much about Japan. Only the two Inaba stories at the end of the book (and occasional other moments, like the idea of a school of "transcendental assassination") get particularly near the satirical edge of Dredd, and without that dimension--a setting in which the power relations of our world are exaggerated to the point of ludicrousness--it keeps sinking into taking itself too seriously, a dry run for Nikolai Dante without that series' joie de vivre.


Thanks again to Anne! Next week, Lori Matsumoto joins me to discuss the collection of what might be the least likely Dredd supporting character to go on to a serial of his own: The Taxidermist

Sunday, April 1, 2012


(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from Judge Dredd Megazine #2.12-2.17, 2.22-2.26, 2.37-2.43)

Mechanismo is the Judge Dredd epic where nothing happens. That's an exaggeration, but not much of one. Consider that its 18 episodes add up to 164 pages--exactly as long as "The Cursed Earth," a touch longer than "The Judge Child" or "The Apocalypse War" or "Necropolis." And what's the plot? A big Judge robot goes berserk and takes Dredd-style extreme justice Too Far; Dredd tracks it down, fights it, and appears to put it out of commission. Repeat, with a different artist. Repeat, with a third artist, with the variation that Dredd and McGruder are now seriously at odds, and Dredd fudges the outcome of the fight in a way that isn't strictly by the book--setting up the "Conspiracy of Silence"/"Wilderlands" sequence that John Wagner didn't get around to for many months afterward. (Even the "small boy aims fake gun at robot" routine appears at the beginning of each of the three acts, with minimal variation.) It doesn't introduce any major new characters; it doesn't really change the landscape of the series, aside from establishing that McGruder's gotten really unstable and nobody but Dredd seems to mind. It's the sort of story that the Wagner of a few years earlier might have dispatched in three or four weekly episodes.

What we've got here, then, is decompressed storytelling before there was a name for such a thing in common circulation: not a lot of plot, but a lot of big, juicy images, and dialogue-free panels on many more pages than usual. It's a very different sort of pacing from any earlier extended Dredd sequence, and at the beginning of "Mechanismo Returns," Wagner points that out: "Returns" actually happens the same day as "Mechanismo." ("Body Count" happens in a similarly condensed time frame, but is set a year later.) It was a storytelling experiment, and not much like other stories Wagner was writing in that period--"Slick Dickens - Dressed to Kill" or "Bury My Knee at Wounded Heart," for instance. Really, one of the things I like a lot about Wagner as a writer is that he changes his M.O. every few years: this and "The Day the Law Died" and "The Graveyard Shift" and "The Chief Judge's Man" and "Day of Chaos" all have distinctly different voices, but a common sensibility underlying them.

(Yes, that's another Chris Halls cover--he kind of invents his own design for the robot, but it sure looks impressive.)

The concept behind "Mechanismo" isn't like any we've seen in a long-form Dredd story before. As I've mentioned, the fruitful longer Dredd storylines tend to be about the relationship between the man-as-law and the city. This one isn't. The idea is that Dredd dispenses judgement (for some value of "judgement," including his decision to bend the truth at the end), and the robot dispenses law without judgement. That's a decent contrast, undermined by the way Wagner completely fudges the "law without judgement" thing: the robot's just shooting everything he can find the most tenuous excuse to shoot. There's no uncomfortable ethical dynamic, as the story suggests at first there might be: is trial by machine a good thing? No! Done and done. The conclusion of "Body Count" is also rigged enough that Dredd has to explain it through expository thought balloons--an unusually awkward move for Wagner.

(Also worthy of note: in the first story the antagonists are called "robo-Judges," and "mechanismo" is just a tossed-off reference to their personality, a play on "machismo." By the third-from-last episode of that one, Stich--or Stitch, as his name is also spelled--is the "head of Project Mechanismo"; by the end of "Mechanismo Returns," someone's saying "even Mechanismo can't survive that kind of damage for long"; in "Body Count," the robots are just referred to as "Mechanismo units.")

Having the three sections of the storyline drawn by three different artists might've been an effective technique if they'd each had a different tone. I recently got to read "Dead Ringer," from Megazine #3.64-69 (which doesn't look like it's going to get reprinted any time soon): a seven-part serial, written by Wagner and drawn by seven different artists, with each episode a distinct unit in tone and setting. By a few episodes in, Wagner has realized that its structure is so much like "The Judge Child"'s that he explicitly calls back to that story, even bringing back its alien cavemen; shifting the look and feel of every part makes it more fun.

"Mechanismo" might've been the final time one of Wagner's stories was paired with Colin MacNeil's lush fully-painted color style before MacNeil switched to the pen-and-ink technique of "Fading of the Light" and beyond--although he's revived a black-and-white variation on it for Insurrection. In any case, he and Wagner are always a welcome team, and his yellow-orangey lighting effects (for a story that takes place over the course of an hour or two on a sunny morning) hold it together, and make it seem a bit more exciting than it is on reflection.

Peter Doherty isn't quite as successful with "Mechanismo Returns," although it looks like he's trying to give it some visual continuity with MacNeil's work, shifting the color palette for the nighttime-set outdoor scenes but keeping those yellows and oranges dominating the indoor sequences. But whatever else they do, MacNeil's painted figures and settings always look really solid--an appropriate look for a story about a pair of immovable objects colliding. Doherty's figures, especially at this point in his career, had a touch of wobbly, blown-glass fragility about them. That's perfect for a story like "Bury My Knee at Wounded Heart," or even (in its way) "Young Death," but it lowers the stakes of a brute-force piece like "Mechanismo Returns." 

And Manuel Benet's artwork for "Body Count" is just kind of anomalous, in several ways: it's the only story he ever drew for the Megazine or 2000 AD, and it's rendered in a texture-heavy painted style that I associate more with early-'70s European fantasy comics than with the usual look of "Dredd." (That text-heavy cover above is also something of an anomaly.) His McGruder seems particularly off--Benet draws her as a handsome, silver-haired young man who happens to have earrings. I can see how he got there, but Carlos Ezquerra is nearly the only artist who's ever really nailed the look of a post-"Necropolis" McGruder who would be a convincing Chief Judge: a deranged old bat who nonetheless radiates commanding authority.

As a bibliographic note, Megazine #2.37--in which "Mechanismo - Body Count" began--was the first real "relaunch" issue the second volume of the Megazine had had, with all of the its features starting fresh. It's the one in which the Anderson story "Voyage of the Seeker" appeared, and that story's artist Mark Wilkinson also drew the trippy Dredd-mutating-into-Robo-Judge cover. The other features were a still-unreprinted Judge Hershey serial, and the first episodes of both "Return of the Taxidermist" and Shimura. That brings me to next week, when Anne Ishii will be joining me to discuss the collection of the early Shimura stories by Robbie Morrison, Frank Quitely et al.